Wondering about the difference between peppermint and spearmint?

It’s a common question. After all, both spearmint and peppermints are in the mint family. The mints look and smell similar, at least at first glance. But these two most iconic mints have a lot of important distinctions. Here’s the main differences between spearmint and peppermint.

Spearmint vs Peppermint

Spearmint is on the left and peppermint on the right in the image below. You can see the differences between spearmint and peppermint very easily.

Spearmint or peppermint?

Telling the difference between spearmint and peppermint

First, many people refer to ‘mint’ without realizing there are many types of mint, though peppermint and spearmint are the most common varieties. Odds are good if someone says ‘mint’ they’re referring to one of those.  So someone might wonder about the difference between peppermint and mint but what they’re really asking is how peppermint and spearmint are different.

How to identify mint plants

All mints have visual similarities, of course, but here are a few ways to tell peppermint from spearmint.

The first step towards understanding the differences between mint plants and how to use them is being able to reliably identify them! Peppermint has distinctly purple stems that are very square. Now, other strains of mint can have purplish tints and most mint stems are a bit on the blocky side. But peppermint’s stem is a very saturated shade of purple, and is more squared off.

Spearmint leaves vs. Peppermint leaves

Spearmint leaves are typically longer and more pointed than peppermint leaves. By contrast, peppermint usually has smaller, rounder leaves, and the veins aren’t as deep set. Having said that, growing conditions and habit can affect the size and development of leaves, so it is possible to have a peppermint plant with larger leaves.

spearmint and peppermint leaves

Spearmint leaves on the left, peppermint leaves on the right.

Another big visual difference between mints is the color. Peppermint is usually a deeper shade of green than spearmint. But here again, growing conditions and the health of the plant can affect this.

So how can you tell if a mint is spearmint or peppermint?

First, look for the visual queues just mentioned. They’re especially helpful if you can see the entire plant, rather than just a sprig.

Mints smell different

If you’re still not confident in the identification, crush a leaf from one and sniff it. While all mints have a distinct aroma, peppermint smells  much stronger and contains a stronger menthol note. If the mint smells of camphor, it’s peppermint. If you’re going to sniff test both plants, be sure to give wash your hands in between and give your aroma receptors a few minutes to reset.

Spearmint and peppermint taste different

Finally, you can tell peppermint from spearmint by taste. Peppermint has a bigger, bolder flavor that packs a big wallop of menthol. It might even make your tongue numb or leave your mouth tingly. If you use peppermint toothpaste, you’ll already have a frame of reference for the distinct taste and feel of fresh peppermint. By contrast, spearmint is a lighter flavored mint and although the flavor is strong, it’s not nearly as overpowering as peppermint. Unless you’ve specifically sought spearmint out, you’re most likely to have tasted it in gum or breath mints. It’s the milder mint, in most cases.

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Is it better to use peppermint or spearmint?

For some applications, it might simply be enough to add “mint”. Both varieties share similar flavors, after all. But you’re probably not reading an article about the difference between spearmint and peppermint because you want to use them carelessly.

Here’s some general guidance to help you know when to use peppermint and when to use spearmint. When it comes to spearmint vs peppermint, they’re equally useful mints but they’re not interchangeable.

First, defer to the recipe, if you’re using one. They will often, though not always, specify.

If the recipe simply calls for mint, here’s how to pick the right mint

Peppermint has a much stronger flavor and a much more pungent aroma. Because of this, it’s more likely to overpower other ingredients. Most savory recipes probably mean spearmint when they simply call for mint. By contrast, many dessert recipes use peppermint – the other sweet, rich ingredients will temper the menthol. Think dark chocolate mint brownies or mint chocolate chip ice cream. In general, use peppermint only when peppermint’s super brisk, menthol flavor is the star of the show.

Tea Time – difference between mint tea and peppermint tea

Mint tea is a term that gets thrown around a lot. As noted above, mint is kind of a catchall term. But there is definitely an advantage to making mint tea with peppermint instead of spearmint. If you’re making hot tea, especially as a remedy for an upset stomach, use peppermint. It holds up better to the heat and  peppermint tea is a powerful stomach soother.

For iced mint tea, use either spearmint or peppermint, or a combination of the two. The best way to make iced mint tea is to steep mint leaves in warm (not hot) water for 20-30 minutes, then chill before drinking. See making herbal teas and infusions for more information on brewing mint tea.

Mint for cocktails

In most cases, use spearmint for cocktails, unless the recipe says otherwise. Spearmint is the right mint for Mint Julep, specifically a variety called Kentucky Colonel. Use spearmint for mojitos or other rum cocktails, or for my favorite Bourbon Mojito. The mild, more mellow  flavor of spearmint won’t overpower the rest of the cocktail.

You can use any type of spearmint for cocktails. But there are specific varieties of spearmint for particular cocktails. If you’ve got it, use Kentucky Colonel spearmint for juleps and Mojito Mint for mojitos.

A great way to make sure you always have mint on hand for cocktails is to make a batch of mint cocktail syrup! It’s easy to make mint syrup for cocktails, just follow my recipe for herb infused simple syrups

What are flavored mints?

There are also fruit flavored mints, like orange mint and apple mint. And, believe it or not, you can even grow chocolate mint. The modified mints are generally spearmints. While these designer mints have a hint of the modifying flavor, don’t expect chocolate mint leaves to taste like a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream. The flavor is very subtle, but these modified mints can be great additions in cocktails and desserts!

Using mint medicinally

Generally, if you are using mint for therapeutic purposes, you should use peppermint. For example, peppermint is commonly used in balms and rubs designed to relieve headaches. Peppermint also an ingredient in many topical rubs and shower steam disks intended to help nasal congestion. If you are using any herb, including mint, for medicinal purposes, always consult your doctor or an herbalist. This is provided as general information, not medical advice.

Spearmint or peppermint?

Is there a difference between growing spearmint and peppermint?

Not really. All members of the mint family are prolific growers. Some varieties of mint might grow more upright or sprawl a bit more, but mints generally have the same growing requirements. Namely, plenty of space OR some form of containment, plenty of water and a fair amount of sunlight. Mint doesn’t like to be boggy but it also needs consistent moisture for the best flavor and growth. It wants sun but tends to do best if it’s protected from the sun in the hottest part of the day, at least in very warm areas.

Mint will form flowers, especially if it’s in a very sunny area. Once this happens, the flavor of the leaves changes. It’s best to keep your mint pruned to prevent flowering and help the plant stay compact with flavorful leaves.

Growing mint in a container

If you grow mint in a container, which is recommended if you’re concerned about it taking over, it will need to be split up and replanted every year. Give it a roomy pot with lots of surface area and loose soil. The plant wants to spread and it will get leggy and root bound if left too long in the same pot. When that happens, the leaves become tough and sparse and the flavor is diminished. Many people think their mint has died after the winter but in most cases, the plant is simply too crowded in it’s container and is not making new growth.

Mint propagates readily from runners and cuttings. That means it’s very easy to simply dump the plant out of the pot, pull it apart into manageable chunks and replant those chunks. Alternatively, you can take cuttings of the mint and root those, giving you new plants. See How to Propagate Perennial Herbs to learn how to grow fresh new mint plants.

Both spearmint and peppermint are prolific plants. Even a tiny piece of stem can be enough to spawn a whole new plant, so be very thorough if you are trying to clear out a patch of it.

Can you use peppermint and spearmint in the same dish?

Sure. There are some double mint recipes that call for both kinds of mint.  Mint tea made with both kinds of mint is lovely. I personally like to add a bit of spearmint to to some dessert recipes to balance the minty flavor and add some brightness. A good rule of thumb is that adding or subbing in spearmint to a recipe that calls for peppermint is generally fine. The reverse is less likely to be true, but a little bit of peppermint can help bring out mint flavor if it’s getting lost in a dish.

Final thoughts….

Difference between peppermint or spearmint

Keep in mind this is all general. The specific variety of spearmint or peppermint you have may dictate how you use it. And the freshness and overall quality of the mint matters, too. Super fresh mint you grow yourself is going to taste very different than store bought stuff that’s been in a plastic clamshell for days. Dried mint leaves lose much of their flavor and nuance, so it can matter less which variety you’re using and you may need more leaves to get the same flavor as fresh.

Spearmint and peppermint aren’t interchangeable, despite both often being called simply ‘mint’. Learning the differences between spearmint and peppermint will help you use your herbs well and get the most out of them.

Want to know more about herbs? Add some of these excellent herb books to your library


Resources to help you grow, use and preserve herbs

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